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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Look Back: Facing The Unexpected In Setúbal

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

61 men from 34 countries entered and swam their hearts out at the second qualification swim in Setúbal Bay, Portugal on June 10th 2012.

The final 15 positions were up for grabs in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in London on August 9th 2012.

The athletes had largely devoted years to realize their dreams. There were no lanes, no lines, no walls...and no mercy shown. The Olympic qualification race, ultimately won by gold medalist Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia, had all the drama and excitement that athletes, coaches, administrators and fans expected.

In many cases, athletes were not only racing against each other, but also against their own teammates as every country only had the opportunity to qualify one athlete.

But there was one man representing one country that has collectively showed intense passion and excitement for open water swimming in all its forms: Chris Bryan of Ireland.

In addition to its rich history of open water swimming (e.g., the Vibes & Scribes Lee Swim started in 1914), Ireland has quietly and steadily emerged as a global hotbed of open water swimming over the last few decades. Events of varied distances, training locations, camps, fans, media attention, and voices of the sport are blossoming and growing.

When such a tipping point is reached, heroes and heroines start to emerge. Swimmers like Lisa Cummins, Kieran Fitzgerald, Jack McClelland, Deirdre Ward and coaches like Eilís Burns, administrators like Martin Cullen, and escort pilots like Bryan Meharg and Quinton Nelson are men and women of unparalleled passion, commitment and focus.

Like Bryan, these open water advocates represent the hope of their community, the sport and, in fact, a nation.

He trained intensely for the performance of his life. "[Open water swimming] is a tough sport. I do a good bit of mileage. On an average week I’d do about 100 kilometers. I’d be on deck in the morning at 5:10 am for a 10 to 15-minute warm-up and I’d be in the pool then for two and a half to four hours. I’m back in the evening at 2:30 pm. There’s a warm-up for 30 minutes and then I’d be in the pool for another couple of hours."

Swim Ireland supported him at Swim Ireland’s Limerick High Performance Centre under coach Ronald Claes.

With that preparation, Bryan had emerged as one of the top 25 swimmers on the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup circuit in the two years leading up to the 2012 Olympic year. He has been steadily climbing the charts, gaining valuable racing experience and improving with each subsequent race. He had a bronze-medal finish at the 2012 European Open Water Swimming Cup is Eilat, Israel as one example. But in the highly competitive elite marathon swimming world where drafting, positioning, officiating and feeding could change the tactics, pace and results of a race, nothing could be taken for granted.

Bryan gave his best in Setúbal Bay, Portugal on June 10th 2012. It was a wild race with lots of physicality and yellow cards handed out - as well as a red card. Bryan had undeniably performed well. In fact, he excelled and finished 15th - when the top 15 athletes were expected to qualify for London.

2012 FINA Olympic 10 km Marathon Swimming Qualification Results:

1. Oussama Mellouli (Tunisia) 1:45:18.5
2. Richard Weinberger (Canada) 1:45:30.2
3. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) 1:45:34.1
4. Valerio Cleri (Italy) 1:45:36.8
5. Troyden Prinsloo (South Africa) 1:45:40.8
6. Yasunari Hirai (Japan) 1:46:14.6
7. Igor Chervynskiy (Ukraine) 1:46:15.4
8. Ivan Enderica Ochoa (Ecuador) 1:46:17.2
9. Arseniy Lavrentyev (Portugal) 1:46:20.9
10. Yuriy Kudinov (Kazakhstan) 1:46:22.8
11. Erwin Maldonado (Venezuela) 1:46:29.2
12. Chad Ho (South Africa) 1:46:29.4
13. Igor Snitko (Ukraine) 1:46:30.1
14. Csaba Gercsak (Hungary) 1:46:30.7
15. Chris Bryan (Ireland) 1:46:30.7
16. Michael Dmitriev (Israel) 1:46:31.6
17. Luis Ricardo Escobar Torres (Mexico) 1:46:31.6
18. Sergiy Fesenko (Azerbaijan) 1:46:31.7
19. Allan Do Carmo (Brazil) 1:46:38.0
20. Francois Xavier Desharnais (Canada) 1:46:38.4
21. Yuval Safra (Israel) 1:46:39.4
22. Johndry Segovia (Venezuela) 1:46:40.7
23. Lijun Zu (China)1:46:41.5
24. Santiago Enderica Salgado (Ecuador) 1:46:43.1
25. Matthias Schweinzer (Austria) 1:46:52.6
26. Gergely Gyurta (Hungary) 1:46:53.9
27. Kane Radford (New Zealand) 1:47:02.7
28. Jan Pošmourný (Czech Republic) 1:47:04.9
29. Ventsislav Aydarski (Bulgaria) 1:47:37.9
30. Luciano Sales Rubio (Argentina) 1:47:41.5
31. Ferry Weertman (Netherlands) 1:47:42.7
32. Marcel Schouten (Netherlands) 1:47:45.3
33. Lucas Kanieski (Brazil) 1:49:08.5
34. Rostislav Vítek (Czech Republic) 1:49:36.6
35. Daniel Fogg (Great Britain) 1:49:38.2
36. Mazen Aziz (Egypt) 1:49:38.2
37. Damian Blaum (Argentina) 1:49:42.7
38. David Davies (Great Britain) 1:50:04.0
39. Jovan Mitrovic (Switzerland) 1:50:09.3
40. Vasco Gaspar (Portugal) 1:50:11.7
41. Stefan Sigrist (Switzerland) 1:50:12.4
42. Ahmed Gad (Egypt) 1:52:14.8
43. Jonathan Pullon (New Zealand) 1:53:30.4
44. Saleh Mohammad (Syria) 1:53:56.9
45. Tin Yu Ling (Hong Kong) 1:54:12.2
46. Evgenij Pop Acev (Macedonia) 1:54:13.2
47. Divase Mandar Anadarao (India) 1:57:07.9
48. Iacovos Hadjiconstantinou (Cypress) 1:57:48.8
49. Ahmed Gebrel (Palestine) 1:58:10.8
50. Kurt Niehaus (Costa Rica) 1:58:24.7
51. Yuanpeng Lang (China) 1:58:48.3
52. Benjamin Schulte (Guam) 2:00:56.4
53. Yeung Lee (Hong Kong) 2:04:46.1
54. Gabriel Moldoveanu (Romania) 2:10>43.0
Ivan de Jesus Lopez Ramos (Mexico) DNF
Nicola Bolzonello (Italy) DNF
Tomislav Soldo (Croatia) DNF
Josip Culina (Croatia) DNF
Mohammed El Mehdi Essadiq (Morocco) DNS
Said Saber (Morocco) DSQ
Yuto Kobayashi (Japan) DSQ

His hopes were up for representing his country at the 2012 London Olympic Games. But then the complicated FINA qualification rules popped up and the Irishman ran smack into an open water swimming maxim: "expect the unexpected."

The qualification process and the invitation acceptance for the open water swimmers at the Olympics is unconventional - and unlike the rules for pool swimming. The process was developed to enable as many countries around the world to be represented in the Olympic 10K marathon swim. This process is considered to be one of the reasons for the explosive global growth of the sport.

For the London Olympic Games, swimmers from Greece, Germany, Russia, USA, Australia, Spain, Belgium, France, Tunisia, Canada, Bulgaria, Italy, South Africa, Japan, Ukraine, Ecuador, Portugal, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Hungary, New Zealand, Egypt, Great Britain, Brazil, Czech Republic, Switzerland, China, Poland, Croatia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia ultimately qualified.

On the face of it, the qualification process served its purpose and met its goal. But not everything turned out to be perfect and clear-cut in the open water world, especially for Bryan.

Similar to Israel at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both New Zealand and the Netherlands turned down the invitations extended to their top athletes to participate in the 2012 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in London.

This is where the qualification process became ambiguous and subject to interpretation. Due to the results from Setúbal Bay, swimmers from Hungary Mexico, Guam and Ireland anxiously waited for an official decision from FINA for the 25th and last spot in the Olympic final.

On the men’s side, the four athletes in question involved Csaba Gercsak of Hungary (14th in 1:46:30.7), Bryan (15th in 1:46:30.7), Luis Escobar of Mexico (18th in 1:46:31.6), Kane Radford of New Zealand (27th in 1:47:02.7), and Benjamin Schulte of Guam (52nd in 2:00:56.4). When Swimming New Zealand declined the invitation extended to Radford, this opened up the 25th and final spot to the next swimmer on the list.

Depending on the interpretation of the rules, either Bryan of Ireland or Schulte of Guam became eligible. Ultimately, Schulte received the invitation as FINA ruled that the 'next available swimmer' means the Oceania Continental Representative - or Schulte from Guam (i.e., 'the next fastest swimmer' from Oceania after Radford). On the other hand, Bryan was disappointed that FINA ruled against the 'next available swimmer' meaning the next fastest swimmer on the list since he was barely edged out by Gercsak, the European Continental Representative.

But Bryan head his head up high for his performance was stellar and the Irish open water swimming community was well represented.

Footnote: On January 5th 2018, he was inducted as an Honour Swimmer in the Hall of Fame – Marathon Swimming Ireland.

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